An Introduction to Western World History

western world history

The West—or Western Civilization, as some prefer to call it—evolved from the ancient Greek city-states, through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. It grew further through the Age of Exploration’s expansion of European kingdoms across the globe. In the process, Europe encountered peoples of different religions and cultures. This, combined with Europe’s religious views, often led to violent conflicts.

For example, the Crusades were a series of wars fought between Christendom and the Islamic world. Europeans believed that members of other religions—Jews, Muslims and Christians who deviated from official orthodoxy—were infidels who needed to be converted or exterminated. The resulting conflict was bloody and long-lasting, and lasted into the modern era.

What we now think of as the Western world, or the West, grew out of these struggles for democracy and self-determination. By the late 19th century, large new states appeared in Europe—Australasia, France and Western Europe—and many nationalities agitated for more power and independence from larger empires.

This was a time of great economic upheaval as well, and the boom times ended with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 that sparked global depression and unemployment. At the same time, dictators like Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin rose to power. They imposed extreme political systems that brought starvation, mass dislocations and genocide to their peoples.

The great power that is the United States emerged from this tumultuous time. Its responsibilities in the world have changed with the changing times, but it has always been one of the most influential players in the history of the West.

In the broader sense, what is called the Western world now includes Australia, India and most of Latin America. In the past, it also included most of Africa and Asia—though some would argue that referring to those regions as part of the “western” world is a euphemism for “white.” The term has become controversial because it lumps together very different societies and can sometimes appear to be a racist slur.

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